The Art of Practicing: Volume 1

This is for those practicing instruments of any kind, including the voice.

There are 168 hours in a week. I usually get to see a student for only one of those hours. And although a great lesson can be a liberating experience with lasting benefits (don’t you love those?), the 167 hours that you spend outside of your lesson will ultimately have the greatest impact on your musical achievements.

No matter how much time you spend with your teacher, in rehearsals, or on stage performing, it’s all about your practice. And here’s the kicker: You are in charge of what your practice looks like, sounds like, and feels like. Unless you are on a strict regimen given by a parent or guardian, you alone decide when your practice starts and when it stops. You decide how frequently you do it. You choose the conversation being had in your mind as you practice…and when you aren’t practicing but think you should be. You are the referee in this match between you and your own potential. You make the calls and you choose the tone of those calls. Making wise choices about what you bring to your practice will have a profound effect on the strength and longevity of your relationship with music itself.

Practicing should never be only about putting the right notes in the right place. Practicing should be about putting everything in its right place, including your thoughts. If you are not aware of your thoughts as you begin to practice and throughout, your practice may become associated with thoughts that are counterproductive. Whether or not you believe you are experiencing any kind of cognitive dissonance, you should check in with yourself regularly. There is no greater ally in the process of learning than self-awareness…except, perhaps, fun.

As a musician, amateur or professional, no matter what your level of passion may be, you are not just practicing an instrument. You are practicing a state of mind. I highly recommend that students spend at least a few minutes prior to their practice sessions to get into a mind space that will properly prepare them to get the most out of their practice and their relationship with music, whatever the parameters of that relationship may be. Below is a list of some prompts and actions designed to guide your thoughts and hopefully create a space for you to feel free and have fun. I encourage you to modify any of these to suit you specifically and add to the list anything that truly serves you and brings you back to your instrument. Make yourself a cheat sheet of things you want to bring with you into your practice and keep it in front of you while you practice. You will forget from time to time, and you will make mistakes, but that’s why it’s called practice!

The art of successful practicing is, in itself, a practice.

  1. I am giving myself the gift of time. Moving slowly and attentively through your practice is tantamount to spending quality time with the ones you love. It is, indeed, an expression of self-love. If that feels uncomfortable, that just means that you have one more thing to practice. Don’t fret over having spent a whole practice session on one measure of music. This kind of “zooming in” as I call it is sometimes necessary. It can also be incredibly rewarding. Often what you get from such sessions will make other musical information easier to assimilate. It’s a worthy investment of time. Accuracy before speed, always. Accuracy creates space for flow, flow creates space for speed. Slow is the way to fast. Don’t worry about the tempo it’s supposed to be. You’ll get there. Make it sound like music at the speed at which you can play it, no matter how slow that currently is.

  2. I am seeking inspiration as part of my practice. You don’t have to do this alone! Music doesn’t exist in a void. It is a shared, universal experience. Spend time with your musical heroes. Chances are they’re what brought you here in the first place. Seek out new ones. Go see live music. Read blogs about music and studying music! Check out the other entries in my blog! Some of my best sessions have happened after listening to one of my heroes talk about music and after watching a music film or documentary. Read a book (suggestions forthcoming in subsequent volumes of “The Art of Practicing”). Even just a YouTube video of a beautiful performance can put me in the mood. Explore the seemingly bottomless well of amazing music from all over the world. Discover.

  3. I am doing this because it’s fun. Even if you are professional musician, music has to be fun. Although you can definitely work an instrument, wouldn’t you rather play one? If you’re not having fun with it, explore ways to make it fun. Fun brings you back to your instrument. Fun facilitates higher learning. Find a teacher that inspires you and makes it fun. Play music that is fun to play. Glue a bobble-head to your keyboard. Be silly. Play. If it’s not fun, why do it?

  4. I am doing this because it’s time well-spent. Music is good for you. Human beings, when unencumbered by nurtured inhibitions, are singing and dancing creatures, almost as if it were in our DNA. The study and playing of music has profound effects on cognitive abilities. There are any number of resources detailing why human beings thrive when participating in music.

  5. I don’t have to be good to do this. Anything worth doing is worth doing badly. You don’t ever need to be a virtuoso to enjoy and benefit from music. I’m a professional musician and I make mistakes ALL the time! You will improve over time when you have a productive state of mind, patience, and focus, but you don’t have to get better, ever. Besides: you can only ever be where you are and go from there. Allow yourself to be where you are and allow yourself to grow if it happens.

  6. I don’t have to practice to play. You should sit and play something even if it’s not what you are “supposed” to be working on. It’s way more important that the joy of the experience of playing brings you to your instrument. Even if you regularly and industriously practice, take time to just play.

  7. I’m practicing self-awareness. More than anything, the practice of yoga for me has been a practice of self-awareness, and self-awareness is paramount in the study of any instrument. Where am I really at? What are my goals? Am I slouching? Am I holding tension in my hands, my body, or my throat? Am I holding my breath? Am I holding myself back? And I indulging in negative, counterproductive thoughts? Am I giving myself all the time I need to master a technique or even a single measure of music that I am stumbling on? When you practice self-awareness, you open yourself up to self-discovery—you create opportunities to learn about yourself, and about how you, yourself, learn. It becomes easier to catch yourself repeating mistakes. It becomes easier to notice when you are exerting more effort than needed causing unnecessary tension that is slowing you down and creating unnecessary discomfort. Be efficient in your movements – when you move half as much you can play twice as fast. Not that it’s all about speed (see item 1), but it is definitely about efficiency and freedom. Overworking your muscles means discomfort and sometimes even injury. Efficiency means an experience of ease and facilitates extended practicing and performance flow.

  8. I will revel in my triumphs. Even the small steps forward should be noted and celebrated. “I just did that” can be a wonderful background mantra. People like to feel growth and sense accomplishment, and by choosing to accomplish something with every practice you are reinforcing a feeling that will bring you back to your instrument. If all you’ve got today is 2 minutes, sit and play for those two minutes and revel in the triumph that you showed up.

  9. I will not punish myself for my mistakes. Not even the mistake of not practicing! This can be a hard one for a lot of people, especially if it’s one of those mistakes that seems to be often repeated. Trust that you can reprogram your way out of a rut if you give yourself the time to do so (see item 1). Nobody wants to focus on “what’s wrong” with themselves or their performance, but if you can do so from a place of love, you can make it right and avoid a negative association with music. If you create negative associations with music, you inhibit the process. Don’t equate or associate self-awareness with self-punishment.

  10. I will sing like everyone is listening and dance like everyone is watching…and they love me. Musical inhibitions are a learned behavior. In many cultures throughout the world, singing and dancing is a daily activity, a way of life. For such peoples, it doesn’t really matter if you are good or not—only that you are participating. Not surprisingly, it is from such musically liberating environments that some of the world’s best musicians emerge. As I said in item 2, music is a shared experience. It is meant to be experienced with others. No matter how much time you spend alone with music, you won’t experience the real power of it until you sing it for a friend, play it for your parents, put it on a stage, jam it in a living room, or play it together with an ensemble. Practice and perform your music as a communication, as a connection to an other, even if that other is imagined or just the space you are in. Recognize that you are just one element of the vibration of music that finds its authentic state when it resonates in, and connects you with, your audience, your environment, and the Cosmos as a whole.

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